BILL FREUND (1944-2020)

IFAS-Research was very sad to hear of the passing of Bill Freund, Prof. emeritus at UKZN, on August 17th. Bill Freund was an authoritative scholar in the field of economic history, development economics and the history of labour, and the transformation of cities in Africa. Combining rigorous thinking with an encyclopedic knowledge of African history, people and places, he was very generous of his time and a great advisor for younger generations of researchers. He was also always keen to participate in any French endeavor in these fields, and he was a constant support and participant in IFAS-Research events and research programmes since the inception of the center. In particular, in 2007, he was very influential in the development of the APORDE programme in rethinking African Development, as well as in the setting up of the GDRI Network-Governing African Cities which involved researchers from all over the African continent and from France. A new collaboration between IFAS-Research and Prof. Freund was under way in 2020, with a project centred on the history of public housing in South Africa (a conference will be organized in 2021).

IFAS-Research offers its condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. He will be sorely missed.

Press tributes:

“Bill Freund (1944-2020): Pioneering economic historian of Africa and South Africa”, by Robert Morrell, in the Daily Maverick, August 21st 2020, available online:

“Bill Freund: a tribute”, by Wits University Press, in the Sunday Times, August 19th 2020, available online:

His good friend, Prof. Alan Mabin, has kindly allowed us to reproduce his tribute to this great historian.

© Alan Mabin.

This picture of Bill and myself together was taken in Place St-André-des-Arts in Paris, in September 2019.  Of course, we were meeting for lunch, just as so many of us shared meals with Bill over all the years and usually learnt a thing or two about cuisine as we did so.

I could name few people who have had as large an influence on my thinking, reading, research and even writing as Bill Freund did, though he is not to blame for my imperfections. Over the decades since I first met him in the early 1980s whilst he was teaching at UCT, and read The Making of Contemporary Africa, his incredibly wide reading across scholarly and creative literature, reflection on his own and others’ intellectual formation, continuous dedication to research, and endless conversations, could hardly fail to make an impact.  His stimulating remarks and sometimes acerbic critique and frequent chuckle added up to much more than a few words could capture.

Bill spent a couple of years as a researcher at the old African Studies Institute at Wits, at which time I ran the weekly seminar held there.  A paper he presented at the seminar made its way into the book of selected pieces from the seminar Organisation and Economic Change which Ravan published in 1989.  Very much still worth reading his ‘Social character of secondary industry in South Africa 1915-1945 with special reference to the Witwatersrand.’  I have to say it was tough bargaining with Bill over the editing, for he had strong ideas and defended them with sophisticated thoughts, unless you could mount a very substantial and well supported argument in another direction.  As in his spell in Zaria, Nigeria, and Joburg, Bill ploughed deep in each region he came to know in Africa, most of all Durban.  And he spread his wings over city studies, as well as the political economy and history from which he had begun.

As everyone knows Bill took up the chair of economic history at University of Natal Durban (as it was) where he became a central intellectual figure in that city and well beyond.  He vigorously engaged in the cultural events that the city offered, always pleased that he could also take in such things in other cities on other continents. Bill, who adhered to no religious faith, valued attending and participating in events that connected to his parents’ origins – in a central European tradition of intellectual and cultural breadth and depth – a world before 1940 in which Jewish life was a component of the cosmopolitan, multilingual and progressive parts of society.  Those for me are the lasting characteristics that Bill always displayed.

In 1995 I had the pleasure of introducing Bill to Philippe Gervais-Lambony, who had recently arrived as the first research director at IFAS in Johannesburg.  That began a long relationship between IFAS and wider French research communities, and Bill.  With support from French agencies and in collaboration with others, Bill brought his adopted city of Durban into comparison with Abidjan and Marseille and collaborated closely on other matters with many members of francophone communities.

My greatest disappointment is that the project that Bill initiated together with Kira, Monique, Leslie and myself has only just begun, and Bill won’t be there in person to help keep it true to his values of superb research, social relevance and dedication to the product.  We will continue to work on public housing histories and memories very much in his honour. 

A good friend and intellectually provocative colleague for almost 40 years, I will miss Bill’s deep and wide knowledge and thinking very much, as others will too. One of his many monuments will be his developmental history Twentieth Century South Africa published last year – and more of his work will yet appear.  Many of his students and colleagues will carry forward his legacy.

My son William Mabin who shares Bill’s name, wrote this on social media: ‘Bill was a larger than life character. Growing up he was always a family friend and I visited him at many landmark times in my life. He was always generous …  So very well read and knowledgeable. RIP Bill.’

Many other friends and colleagues have expressed their feelings about Bill.  Here are some:

David William Cohen:  ‘Oh no. Three days ago I was talking about his visit and talk/s at Johns Hopkins some 35 years ago. Always stimulating.’

Mark Oranje:  ‘I am really sorry to hear this, and especially for … his very good friends … Thanks to you I got to know him a bit, and even that little bit was fascinating and inspirational.’

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch :  ‘Quelle tristesse! Merci de m’associer aux condoléances’ 

Dilip Menon: ‘Oh this is saddening. I learnt a lot from Bill’s work and his interventions in our capitalism workshop were profound and incisive. A great loss.’

Preben Kaarsholm: ‘Very sad news… he was a great scholar and a good and loyal friend.’

Achille Mbembe: ‘Bill was an extremely generous human being. His knowledge of the continent was exceptional. We thank him for what this great scholar taught us.’

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie: ‘So sad to read this about a very gentle person who was an intellectual giant and kind to everyone he met.’

Nancy Odendaal: ‘Very sad news. Bill was a wonderful scholar and a generous colleague RIP.’

Lungisile Ntsebeza: ‘The last time I saw Bill was last year in June in Edinburgh, at the African Studies conference.  He supervised my Masters and we now and again touched base. What a brilliant mind!’

Dan Smit: ‘Sad to say goodbye to an old friend. Bill was a good man with an astonishing intellect. We will miss him.’

And I can’t do better that these comments in celebrating Bill’s rich life.

Alan Mabin, August 2020.